What is it that makes figure skating so thrilling to watch? From graceful movements to amazing stunts, figure skating is the oldest sport in the Winter Olympic Games and one of the most popular. And for many, it’s the carefully chosen songs that really make those flying leaps and mid-air twirls so impressive. However, when it comes to the official rules, Olympic figure skating music has had quite a rigid history.
You may never have realized it, but up until the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, figure skaters never skated to songs with lyrics in them — and this definitely wasn’t accidental. The rules and regulations set by the International Skating Union (ISU), the international governing body for competitive ice skating, prohibited using music with lyrics in competitions.
Traditionally, skaters were only allowed to perform their programs to classical or instrumental versions of songs during their routines. However, things have since changed, and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are just the second Winter Games to allow lyrical songs.
When it comes to ice skating music, the sport has recently transformed — many would say for the better. For all you need to know about the history of figure skating music and where things stand now, read on.
History Of Ice Skating Music At The Olympics
Since its Olympic beginnings at the 1908 London Games, figure skating rules only allowed classical, non-lyrical music to be used (with the exception of the ice dance event) — think Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons, Autumn,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.”
As figure skating entered the ‘80s and ‘90s, some skaters began to branch out to film and theater soundtracks — such as Tara Lipinski's iconic 1998 Olympic performance in Nagano, which included an instrumental song from the Anastasia soundtrack. Still, the lyric-free rule tended to keep skaters within a specific, often antiquated performance aesthetic.
Then, in 2014, the International Skating Union announced that they would allow music with lyrics to play during figure skating competitions, in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. The decision was ultimately reached in 2012, but the union decided not to let the change take effect until the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics had finished. Since then, the option has been available for athletes if they so choose.
While many competitors still opt for traditional classical music, the option to include lyrical music opened up doors to incorporate more genres into the skaters' performances. The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics were the first Winter Games to exhibit the rule change, showcasing quite a few different figure skating routines under the new rule. For example, Team USA skater Adam Rippon skated to “O” by Coldplay, and USA pairs team Alex and Maia Shubutani to “Paradise” by Coldplay. Other music choices in PyeongChang included an Elvis medley and songs by Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Snow Patrol, Adele, and more.
While it appears that many figure skaters are taking advantage of this new allowance, the ruling caused some mixed opinions among the public back when it was introduced. Despite its large audience at the Winter Olympics, figure skating has begun losing viewership over the past few years. Many hoped that incorporating lyrics within the routines would lead to increased public interest. Katia Krier, a coach for France's figure skating team, told The New York Times in 2014 that she viewed this change as an inclusive way of drawing in a broader audience. “We have to innovate,” she said. “Our sport is already losing viewers, but we have to give people the desire to watch us.”
On the flip side, some feared that increased use of lyrical music would scare off the already established fan base. Figure skating coach Kori Ade also spoke with the NYT about her thoughts on the new rule, saying, “I think that there is something so regal about skating that might not carry with Top 40 ... I’m afraid people are going to attempt it poorly.”
It could be assumed that non-lyrical, classical music allows for more attention to be put on the skater and their technical form, since they are the ones having to narrate the story they're telling. However, the transition seems to have gone incredibly smoothly so far. In fact, you might even say the rule expansion has made the sport better, as skaters can choose the exact mood and expression they want their performances to convey.
Figure Skating Music At The Olympics Now
At the fast-approaching 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which begin on Feb. 4, viewers can expect around half of the athletes to skate to music with lyrics spread over both the short and free programs in singles and pair events, based on recent international and national competitions. (It’s worth noting that this due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the highly contagious new Omicron variant, things will look a little different this year — all athletes, judges, employees, and spectators will be required to undergo intensive testing and quarantine procedures to minimize any potential spread of infection.)
From Team USA’s 2022 Olympians, for example, Nathan Chen skated to an arrangement of Elton John’s “Rocketman” for his free skate at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in early January. USA’s other singles skaters Vincent Zhou, Mariah Bell, and Jason Brown each had one of their programs choreographed to music with lyrics, whereas Karen Chen and Alysa Liu skated exclusively to instrumental music.
In Beijing, viewers will see competitors from all across the globe use music with lyrics, too. For example, medal-contending figure skaters Alexandra Trsova from Russia and Kaori Sakamoto from Japan are expected to use lyrical songs in their program, along with many other athletes at the upcoming Winter Games.
No matter the tune, you can catch all of the athletes and their varied music choices starting on Feb. 4 as they take the icy stage in Beijing.
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